Gophers hockey notebook: Robson's departure leaves an empty net, for now

The first of many off-season jobs for the Minnesota Gophers' coaching staff is to find a goalie or two among a trio of prospects, and determine whether Mat Robson will be the program's only early departure.
Ohio State forwards Carson Meyer and Dakota Joshua are among more than a dozen Buckeyes who are making their third straight trip to the NCAA playoffs. (Ohio State Athletics)
Ohio State forwards Carson Meyer and Dakota Joshua are among more than a dozen Buckeyes who are making their third straight trip to the NCAA playoffs. (Ohio State Athletics)

MINNEAPOLIS -- Led by head coach Bob Motzko, the Minnesota Gophers' brain trust had a lengthy meeting on Monday to discuss their road map to future success, especially in goal.

On Saturday night during their playoff game at Notre Dame, the Gophers had junior Mat Robson between the pipes, with seniors Eric Schierhorn and Brock Kautz on the bench, ready to go at a moment’s notice if needed. By Monday afternoon, all three were gone, with the seniors’ eligibility exhausted and Robson signing a pro contract with the Minnesota Wild.

Meeting with the media on Tuesday for the last time this season, Motzko said that the coaches’ pens had run out of ink after their four-hour strategy session was concluded. He declined to reveal what the plan is going forward, but said as a staff they’re looking ahead, and not back at Saturday’s controversial penalty and disappointing end to the season.

“We’re thinking about it every single day,” Motzko said of the team’s future roster. “Maps are out right now of where we’re going and what we’re doing. I’m not ready to talk about that, and it’s not the time.”

Goalie possibilities

There are three future Gophers expected to compete for playing time in goal next season: Jack LaFontaine, a transfer from Michigan who played 22 games for the Wolverines, Jared Moe, who has played two seasons in the USHL after a standout high school career at Holy Family Catholic, and Justen Close, who has been playing junior hockey in Saskatchewan for the past three seasons.

Motzko also declined an opportunity to rehash the controversial hooking penalty on co-captain Tyler Sheehy early in overtime on Saturday, which led to Notre Dame’s game-winning power play goal.

“All the words that need to be said are said. Nothing’s going to change. It’s a tough thing for nine kids,” he said, referencing the team’s seniors. “We still had 60 minutes to score a goal and we didn’t score one. That’s the only thing we can do. Let’s not dwell on it. It was wrong, yes, over, yes, move on and when it’s over, now we need to celebrate the things we need to celebrate.”

With Robson signed and working in St. Paul now, the focus of many Gophers fans is on junior forward Rem Pitlick, who led the team in scoring and is thought by some to be a candidate for an early departure. Pitlick was a third-round draft pick of the Nashville Predators.

“It’s a negative part of a lot of college hockey right now. And to be real honest, I’m going to wait to see how it all plays down. Maybe it’s a good thing it hasn’t happened yet. We’ll find out,” Motzko said, admitting that his relative newness with the team’s players that were recruited by Don Lucia changes his dynamic with them. “I’m never going to talk someone into (staying). We’re going to build relationships and a trust factor where hopefully we keep players one year longer and there’s not a rush to get out of here. It’s going to take some time to build that up.”

Instead, with his former team -- St. Cloud State -- ranked atop the national polls and playing for the National Collegiate Hockey Conference title in St. Paul this weekend, Motzko said he’s going to take some time to watch hockey, both at Xcel Energy Center and at rinks where future Gophers may be found.

“I am a cheerleader right now, and it’s pretty safe to say who I’m cheering for,” Motzko said. “I enjoy recruiting, and I enjoy watching hockey. This is a fun time of year for that, but I wish I weren’t doing it right now. We coaches put on a different hat quick.”

Walker honored as Big Ten’s top freshman

It’s increasingly rare for players to make the jump directly from high school hockey to college hockey. It’s even more rare for them to find immediate success while doing so. That’s one of the things that made Sammy Walker’s first season of college hockey so spectacular.

On Tuesday the rookie from Edina, was named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year by a panel of coaches and media from throughout the seven-team conference. Walker, who was Minnesota’s Mr. Hockey last season, led all Big Ten rookies with 26 points in 37 games. He centered the Gophers’ dynamic all-freshman line between Blake McLaughlin and Nathan Burke for much of the season, and missed just one game due to injury.

Motzko recalled a few players from his tenure as a Gophers assistant coach in the early 2000s who also made that direct high school-to-college jump with success.

“It’s easy for good hockey players to do. We’ve seen that happen a lot in this program. Alex Goligoski jumped in and Paul Martin jumped in. Pretty easy transition. Good hockey players can make that change,” he said. “The impact (Walker) had for us was outstanding from Day 1. His character and talent and how hard he played, it was pretty special. That’s a good one to have when you’re a new coach and you come in. Our freshman class was outstanding and he was the leader of that class.”

While encouraging his players to enjoy spring break and get some rest, Motzko said that he expects Walker and next year’s sophomores to work hard in the off-season adding size and muscle.

“It’s a huge off-season for our program upstairs, in the weight room. That freshman class, as good as they are, they are a skinny group,” Motzko said. “They need strength and speed and the confidence you build in that weight room. That’s one of the good parts of college athletics, is watching that transformation start to happen.”